Bashing Out a Book in 30 Days
National Novel Writing Month
Thursday, November 08, 2012 8:00 AM
In 1999, Chris Baty was part of the California dot-com boom made up of young people who thought they would make a fortune and retire before they hit 30. That youthful sense of being able to accomplish anything, no matter how wacky, led Baty to write a 175-page novel (50,000 words) in one month.
Or, to be more precise, to write the first wildly rough draft of a 175-page novel, without even a peek at editing or spell-checking, in 30 hyper-caffeinated days.
Baty talked a few friends into it so he could have writing buddies, word spread, the thing grew, and now, 13 years later, the dot-com boom is a distant bubble and National Novel Writing Month, known as NaNoWriMo and held each November, is a well-established global phenomenon that is expected to attract 300,000 writers this November.
Over the past decade, NaNoWriMo became a full-fledged non-profit with a young-writers program, a month-long scriptwriting challenge called Script Frenzy, another month challenge for editing, and virtual summer writing camp for young writers. There are built-in deadlines, virtual word-counting widgets, local write-ins cafes, including in Maine, and pep talks to keep writers writing works. Last November, almost 37,000 Nanos (including writers from 2,000 schools) completed the NaNoWriMo word-count goal.
But what is the point of bashing out a book in 30 days? Isn't there already a whole lot of bad writing out there?
What Baty discovered in his month-long frenzy wasn't what he expected. It wasn't so much about producing a novel, after all, even though that was the goal. With a group of friends to hang out with, a common deadline, a very loose plan of what to write about and no time to revise or edit, the process was purely creative. There was no internal editor hovering nearby to say the writing was total dreck. The internal editor had to take the month off; there simply wasn't any time to pay attention. There was no sense that the writing had to be good or even okay or that it ever had to see the light of day at the end of the month. It could; it might; but there was no requirement other than to meet the goal of 50,000 words in one month.
And, it turned out to be a whole lot of goofy fun.
If there was no plot, that was no problem. No characters? That wasn't particularly a problem, either. A vague idea was sufficient, start writing, and the rest would more or less take care of itself.I do not write fiction, but I do use the techniques of fiction in long-form reporting: plot, scene-setting, character development, dialogue, rising tension. It's all about story-telling, except it's all true.
So, in 2010, I signed up for NaNoWriMo with a loose plan of writing non-fiction about working in a big-box store for a couple of years during the recent recession when journalism jobs dried up nationwide.
By November 2010, however, I was employed full-time as a reporter for The Free Press and didn't have a lot of extra time. I wrote "Thinking Inside the Big Box" faster than anything I have ever written. When I got stuck on plot or characters, I wrote about the endless array of products lining the shelves of the big-box store, or the strange Muzak piped in from North Carolina or the required employee pep rallies. If I really got stuck, I wrote about the weather. I became an incredibly fast typist. Sometimes I didn't even know what I was writing, but eventually, the narrative took hold again and I was writing something at least marginally substantial.
It was fun and extraordinarily creative. It took me, on average, 45 minutes a day to reach the goal of 50,000 words with three days to spare. I printed out my "I Won!" certificate from the NaNoWriMo website, patted myself on the back, bragged to all my friends and co-workers and then tucked the manuscript away and never read it.
I wasn't even interested. I pulled the manuscript out a year later when a friend was visiting and we took turns randomly reading aloud from it. It really wasn't all that bad, proving Baty really was on to something.
But I wasn't sufficiently interested in the topic to spend another six months shaping it into something good.
This November, I am taking on the NaNoWriMo challenge again to write about working as a fisheries biologist off the coast of Alaska 25 years ago. That was when the blue-water foreign fishing fleets from Korea, China, Poland, Japan, Portugal and the Soviet Union were still fishing in U.S. waters, with permission and oversight.
I worked on a 150-foot Japanese stern trawler with a below-decks fish factory and a crew of 35 men, none of whom spoke English. All I have are a couple of snapshots, a handful of not very useful notes, and a sketchy memory. We will see what this November brings, because, if nothing else, I know I can write about the weather.
For more information on National Novel Writing Month, see NaNoWriMo.org.